(a) Lack of majority support

The Bolsheviks had nothing like majority support in the country as a whole. One problem therefore was how to keep themselves in power and yet allow free elections. One of Lenin’s first decrees nationalized all land, including former crown estates and land belonging to the church, without compensation, so that it could be redistributed among the peasants and, so he hoped, win their support. The decree on workers’ control gave industrial workers authority over their managers and was intended to reduce unrest and strikes in factories. Another decree limited the working day in factories to eight hours. Other decrees included granting self-determination to every national group, nationalizing banks, large factories and mines, and cancelling all debts incurred by the tsarist government and the Provisional government.

One major concession that Lenin and Trotsky were prepared to make was to allow some Left Social Revolutionaries to act as junior partners in the government, because they had far more support than the Bolsheviks in rural areas. At the same time they took steps to deal with any opposition. The government claimed the right to close down hostile newspapers and journals, and set up a new security police force. This had the mind-blowing name – the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Sabotage and Counter-Revolution, usually known as the Cheka. Its leader was Felix Dzierzynski.

Lenin knew that he would have to allow elections, since he had criticized Kerensky so bitterly for postponing them; but he sensed that a Bolshevik majority in the Constituent Assembly was highly unlikely. Kerensky had arranged elections for mid-November, and they went ahead as planned. Lenin’s worst fears were realized: the Bolsheviks won 175 seats out of about 700, but the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) won 370; the Mensheviks won only 15, Left Social Revolutionaries 40, various nationality groups 80 and Kadets (Constitutional Democrats who wanted genuine democracy) 17. Under a genuine democratic system, the SRs, who had an overall majority, would have formed a government under their leader, Viktor Chernov. However, Lenin was determined that the Bolsheviks were going to stay in power; there was no way in which he was going to hand it over to the SRs, or even share it, after the Bolsheviks had done all the hard work of getting rid of the Provisional Government.

After some anti-Bolshevik speeches at the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly (January 1918), it was dispersed by Bolshevik Red Guards (who watched over the meeting with loaded gun) and not allowed to meet again, accusing its members of being “slaves to the American dollar.” Lenin’s justification for this undemocratic action was that it was really the highest form of democracy: since the Bolsheviks knew what the workers wanted, they had no need of an elected parliament to tell them. The Assembly must take second place to the Congress of Soviets and Sovnarkom (the Council of People’s Commissars); this was a sort of cabinet which had Lenin as its chairman. Armed force had triumphed for the time being, but opposition was to lead to civil war later in the year.

The Third Congress of Soviets:

The assembly was replaced by the Third Congress of Soviets, 94 percent of whose members were required to be Bolshevik and SR delegates. The new group quickly ratified a motion that the term “provisional” be removed from the official description of the SPC, making Lenin and the Bolsheviks the permanent rulers of the country.

The Bolsheviks began to categorize their critics as counter-revolutionaries and treated them as traitors. The terms revolutionary dictatorship and dictatorship of the proletariat began to pop up frequently in Lenin’s speeches, which began to characterize democracy as an illusionary concept propagated by Western capitalists.

(b) The war with Germany

The next pressing problem was how to withdraw from the war. An armistice between Russia and the Central Powers had been agreed in December 1917, but long negotiations followed during which Trotsky tried, without success, to persuade the Germans to moderate their demands. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) was cruel: Russia lost Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Ukraine, Georgia and Finland; this included a third of Russia’s farming land, a third of her population, two-thirds of her coalmines and half her heavy industry. This was a high price to pay, and all the other parties condemned it; the Left Socialist Revolutionaries walked out of Sovnarkom. However, Lenin insisted that it was worth it, pointing out that Russia needed to sacrifice space in order to gain time to recover. He probably expected Russia to get the land back anyway when, as he hoped, the revolution spread to Germany and other countries.

In March 1918, even as Lenin’s representatives were signing the final treaty taking Russia out of World War I, the Bolsheviks were in the process of moving their seat of power from Petrograd to Moscow. This largely symbolic step was a part of the Bolshevik effort to consolidate power.

(c) The drift towards violence

Almost immediately after the October revolution, the Bolsheviks began to resort to coercion in order to get things done and to stay in power. This raises the question, much debated by historians, of whether Lenin had violent intentions from the beginning. or whether he was pushed into these policies against his will by the difficult circumstances. Soviet and Marxist historians played down the violence and claimed that the Bolsheviks had no choice, given the uncompromising attitude of their enemies.

After the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the SRs left Petrograd and moved eastwards to Samara on the Volga. They set up an alternative government which launched a campaign of assassination and terror, before the civil war started. According to Christopher Hill, there was no wholesale suppression of the opposition press during the six months immediately after the Bolshevik revolution, and no violence against political opponents. because there was no need for it. The death sentence was even abolished at the end of October, though Lenin thought this very unrealistic.

The members of the provisional government who had been arrested were almost all released after promising ‘not to take up arms against the people any more’. Lenin himself remarked in November 1917: ‘we do not use the sort of terror as was used by the French revolutionaries who guillotined unarmed people. and I hope we shall not have to use it.’ However, circumstances became increasingly difficult.

  • By January 1918 there were severe food shortages in Petrograd and Moscow and some other cities. Lenin was convinced that the better off peasants (kulaks) were hoarding huge quantities of grain in protest against the low payments that they were receiving. They hoped to force the government to increase their payments. There is plenty of evidence that this was indeed the case. Lenin’s new secret police, the Cheka, were given the job of dealing with grain hoarders and speculators. ‘There will be no famine in Russia’, Lenin said in April 1918. ‘if stocks are controlled and any breach of the rules is followed by the harshest punishment – the arrest and shooting of takers of bribes and swindlers.’
  • After the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918), the loss of Ukraine, a vitally important source of wheat, made the food situation worse.
  • The left wing Social Revolutionaries did their best to wreck the treaty, and began a campaign of terror. They assassinated the German ambassador and a leading Bolshevik member of the Petrograd soviet, and there was some evidence that they were attempting either to seize power for themselves or to spark off a popular uprising to force the Bolsheviks to change their policies.
  • On 30 August 1918, the head of the Petrograd Cheka was assassinated, and later the same day a woman shot Lenin twice with a revolver at point blank range. He was wounded in the neck and one of his lungs, but seemed to make a quick recovery.

All these events can be taken as evidence that it was the desperate situation, rather than any inherent ideological motive, which drove Lenin and the Bolsheviks into retaliating with violence.

The problem was that however well-intentioned the Bolsheviks were, Lenin’s reasoning was fatally flawed in two vital respects.

  1. Karl Marx had predicted that the collapse of capitalism would take place in two stages: first. the middle class bourgeois capitalists would overthrow the autocratic monarchy and set up systems of parliamentary democracy. Secondly, when industrialisation was complete, the industrial workers (proletariat), who were now in a majority, would overthrow the bourgeois capitalists and set up a classless society – the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. The first stage had taken place with the February revolution. The Mensheviks believed that the second stage could not occur until Russia was fully industrialized and the proletariat was in a majority. However, Lenin insisted that in Russia’s case, the two revolutions – bourgeois and proletarian – could be successfully telescoped together; this was why he had launched the October coup – the opportunity was too good to be missed! This had given rise to the situation in which the Bolsheviks were in power before their most reliable supporters – industrial workers – had become a large enough class to sustain them. This left the Bolsheviks as a minority government, uncomfortably dependent on the largest, but most self-interested class in Russian society – the peasants.
  2. Lenin expected that a successful revolution in Russia would occur as part of a European or even a worldwide socialist revolution. He was convinced that revolutions would quickly follow in central and western Europe, so that the new Soviet government would be supported by sympathetic neighbouring governments. None of this had happened, so Russia was left isolated, facing a capitalist Europe which was deeply suspicious of the new regime.

Both internally and externally, therefore, the regime was under pressure from the forces of counter-revolution. Law and order seemed to be breaking down and local soviets simply ignored the government’s decrees. If the Bolsheviks intended to stay in power and rebuild the country, regrettably they would more than likely have to resort to violence to achieve anything significant.

Traditional liberal historians reject this interpretation; they believe that Lenin and Trotsky, though perhaps not all the Bolshevik leaders, were committed to the use of violence and terror from the beginning. Richard Pipes claims that Lenin regarded terror as an absolutely vital element of revolutionary government and was prepared to use it as a preventive measure, even when no active opposition to his rule existed. Why else did he set up the Cheka early in December 1917, at a time when there was no threat of opposition and no foreign intervention? He points out that in a 1908 essay on the failure of the French revolutionaries, Lenin had written that the main weakness of the proletariat was ‘excessive generosity – it should have exterminated its enemies instead of trying to exert moral influence over them’. When the death penalty was abolished, Lenin was highly indignant, retorting: ‘This is nonsense, how can you make a revolution without executions?’

(d) The ‘Red Terror’

Whatever the intentions of the Bolsheviks, there is no doubt that violence and terror became widespread. The Red Army was used to enforce the procurement of grain from peasants who were thought to have surpluses. During 1918 the Cheka suppressed 245 peasant uprisings and 99 in the first seven months of 1919. Social Revolutionaries and other political opponents were rounded up and shot. One of the most disturbing features of this ‘Red Terror’ was that many of those arrested and executed were not guilty of any particular offence, but were accused of being ‘bourgeois’; this was a term of abuse, applied to landowners, priests, businessmen, employers, army officers and professional people. They were all labelled ‘enemies of the people’ as part of the government’s campaign of class war.

Lenin asserts his control by cruel methods such as the Gulag, a vast and brutal network of prison camps for both criminals and political prisoners.

One of the worst incidents of the terror was the murder of the ex-Tsar Nicholas and his family. In the summer of 1918 they were being kept under guard in a house in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. By that time the civil war was in full swing; the Bolsheviks were afraid that White forces, which were advancing towards Ekaterinburg, might rescue the royal family, who would then become a focus for all the anti-Bolshevik forces. Lenin himself gave the order for them to be killed, and in July 1918 the entire family, together with members of their household, were shot by members of the local Cheka. Their graves were only discovered after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In 1992 some of the bones were subjected to DNA analysis, which proved that they were indeed the remains of the Romanovs.

(e) Civil war

By April 1918, armed opposition to the Bolsheviks was breaking out in many areas, leading to civil war. The opposition (known as the Whites) was a mixed bag, consisting of Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, ex-tsarist officers and any other groups which did not like what they had seen of the Bolsheviks. There was great discontent in the countryside, where peasants hated the food-procurement policies of the government even the soldiers and workers, who had supported the Bolsheviks in 1917, resented the highhanded way in which the Bolsheviks treated the soviets (elected councils) all over Russia. One of the Bolshevik slogans had been ‘ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS’. Naturally. people had expected that every town would have its own soviet, which would run the town’s affairs and local industry. Instead, officials (known as commissars) appointed by the government arrived, supported by Red Guards; they threw Social Revolutionary and Menshevik members out of the soviets, leaving Bolshevik members in control. It soon turned into dictatorship from the centre instead of local control. The slogan of the government’s opponents became ‘LONG LIVE THE SOVIETS AND DOWN WITH THE COMMISSARS’. Their general aim was not to restore the Tsar, but simply to set up a democratic government on Western lines.

In Siberia, Admiral Kolchak, former Black Sea Fleet commander, set up a White government; General Denikin was in the Caucasus with a large White army. Most bizarre of all, the Czechoslovak Legion of about 40 000 men had seized long stretches  of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the region of Omsk. These troops were originally prisoners taken by the Russians from the Austro-Hungarian army, who had then changed sides after the March revolution and fought for the Kerensky government against the Germans. After Brest-Litovsk the Bolsheviks gave them permission to leave Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, but then decided to disarm them in case they co-operated with the Allies, who were already showing interest in the destruction of the new Bolshevik government. The Czechs resisted with great spirit and their control of the railway was a serious embarrassment to the government.

The Allied intervention:

The situation was complicated by the fact that Russia’s allies in the First World War intended to help the Whites. They claimed that they wanted a government which would continue the war against Germany. The Allies became concerned at the collapse of the Eastern front and the loss of their Tsarist autocracy ally to communism and there was also the question of the large amounts of supplies and equipment in Russian ports, which the Allies feared might be commandeered by the Germans or the Bolsheviks. The initial goals were to help the Czechoslovak Legions, secure supplies of munitions and armaments in Russian ports, and re-establish the Eastern Front.

When their intervention continued even after the defeat of Germany, it became clear that their aim was to destroy the Bolshevik government, which was now advocating world revolution.

The USA, Japan, France and Britain sent troops, who landed at Murmansk, Archangel and Vladivostok.

The situation seemed grim for the Bolsheviks when, early in 1919, Kolchak (whom the Allies intended to place at the head of the next government) advanced towards Moscow, the new capital. However, Trotsky, now Commissar for War, had done a magnificent job creating the well-disciplined Red Army, based on conscription and including thousands of experienced officers from the old tsarist armies. Kokhak was forced back and later captured and executed by the Reds. The Czech Legion was defeated, and Denikin, advancing from the south to within 250 miles of Moscow, was forced to retreat; he later escaped with British help.

As the White armies began to suffer defeats, the interventionist states lost interest and withdrew their troops. Allied efforts were hampered by divided objectives, war-weariness and a lack of public support. These factors, together with the evacuation of the Czechoslovak Legion compelled the Allies to withdraw in 1920, though Japanese forces occupied parts of Siberia until 1922 and the northern half of Sakhalin until 1925.

The Allied intervention and its foreign troops were used effectively by the Bolsheviks to demonstrate that their enemies were backed by Western capital. Despite the Allies being able to withdraw in good order after significant defenses against the Red Army, the Bolsheviks were eventually victorious, leading to the establishment of the Soviet Union.

From the communist point of view, the important thing was that they had won the civil war. Lenin was able to present it as a great victory, and it did much to restore the government’s prestige after the humiliation of Brest-Litovsk. There were a number of reasons for the communist victory:

  1. The Whites were not centrally organized. Kokhak and Denikin failed to link up, and the nearer they drew to Moscow, the more they strained their lines of communication. They lost the support of many peasants both by their brutal behaviour, and because peasants feared that a White victory would mean the loss of their newly acquired land.
  2. The Red Armies had more troops. After the introduction of conscription, they had almost 3 million men in arms, outnumbering the Whites by about ten to one. They controlled most of the modern industry and so were better supplied with armaments, and had the inspired leadership of Trotsky.
  3. Lenin took decisive measures, known as war communisms, to control the economic resources of the state. All factories of any size were nationalized, all private trade banned and food and grain were seized from peasants to feed town workers and troops. ‘This was successful at first since it enabled the government to survive the civil war, but it had disastrous results later.
  4. Lenin was able to present the Bolsheviks as a. nationalist government fighting against foreigners; and even though war communism was unpopular with the peasants, the Whites became even more unpopular because of their foreign connections.

(f) Effects of the civil war

Th e war was ‘bl t d t·or the Russian people – there was an enormous cost in human lives and suffering. Taking into account those killed in the Red Terror, in the military action, and in the White anti-Jewish pogroms; those who died from starvation and those who perished from dysentery and in the typhus and typhoid epidemics, the total number of deaths was at least 8 million – more than four times the number of Russian deaths in the First World War (1.7 million). The economy was in ruins and the rouble was worth only one per cent of its value in October 1917.

At the end of the war important changes had taken place in the communist regime. Economically it became more centralized, as state control was extended over all areas of the economy. Politically, the regime became militarized and even brutalized. The question that has occupied historians is whether it was the crisis of the civil war which forced these changes on the government, or whether they would have taken place anyway because of the nature of communism. Was this the inevitable drive towards socialism?

Robert C. Tucker argues that the civil war was responsible for the political developments. He believes that it brutalized the Party and gave its members a siege mentality which they found it difficult to break away from. It made centralization, strict discipline and mobilization of the population in order to achieve the regime’s targets an integral part of the system. Tucker also points out that already, at the height of the civil war, there were signs of Lenin’s more ‘liberal’ thinking, which he was able to put into practice during the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP). For example, in May 1919 Lenin wrote a pamphlet in which he explained that the main obstacle to the achievement of socialism in Russia was the culture of backwardness left over from centuries of tsarist rule. According to Lenin, the best way to change this was not by forcible means, but by education, which unfortunately would take a long time.

Other historians argue that the civil war was one of the influences which brutalized the communist regime, but that it was not the only one. Christopher Read makes the point that the Bolsheviks were products of the tsarist environment, which had itself been extremely authoritarian; tsarist governments had never hesitated to use extreme methods against their enemies. It was only a few years since Stolypin had executed around 4000 opponents. ‘In the prevailing circumstances’, argues Read, ‘it is hard to see why opposition should be tolerated when the Russian tradition was to eradicate it as heresy.’ Among the older generation of liberal historians, Adam Ulam argued that violence and terror were an integral part of communism, and claimed that Lenin actually welcomed the civil war because it gave him an excuse to use more violence.

There is the same debate about the economic features of war communism: were nationalization and state control of the economy central to communist aims and ideals, or were they forced on the government by the need to harness the economy to the war effort? Even Soviet historians differ in their interpretations of this. Some believe that the Party had a basic plan for nationalizing the major industries as soon as possible: hence the nationalization of banks, railways, shipping and hundreds of large factories by June 1918. Others believe that what Lenin really hoped for was a mixed economy in which some capitalist activity would be allowed. Alec Nove came to the very sensible conclusion that ‘Lenin and his colleagues were playing it by ear. … We must allow for the interaction of Bolshevik ideas with the desperate situation in which they found themselves.’


Q. What is War Communism? What were its impacts?


  • War communism was the economic and political system that existed in Soviet Russia during the Russian Civil War, from 1918 to 1921. This policy was adopted by the Bolsheviks with the goal of keeping towns and the Red Army stocked with weapons and with food. The system had to be used because the ongoing war disrupted normal economic mechanisms and relations.

War communism included the following policies:

  1. Nationalization of all industries and the introduction of strict centralized management
  2. Introduction of State control of foreign trade
  3. Strict discipline for workers, with strikes disallowed
  4. Imposition of obligatory labour duty onto non-working classes
  5. Requisition of agricultural surpluses (in excess of an absolute minimum) from peasants for centralized distribution among the remaining population
  6. Rationing of food and most commodities, with centralized distribution thereof in urban centers
  7. Private enterprise became illegal
  8. The State introduced military-style control of railways
  • Because the Bolshevik government implemented all these measures in a time of civil war, they were far less coherent and coordinated in practice than they might appear on paper. Large areas of Russia remained outside the Bolsheviks’ control, and poor communications meant that even those regions loyal to the Bolshevik government often had to act on their own, lacking any orders or central coordination from Moscow.

Aims of War Communism:

  • The goals of the Bolsheviks in implementing war communism are a matter of controversy. Some commentators, including a number of Bolsheviks, have argued that its sole purpose was to win the war. Vladimir Lenin, for instance, said that “the confiscation of surpluses from the peasants was a measure with which we were saddled by the imperative conditions of war-time.” Other Bolsheviks argued that it was a transitional step towards socialism.
  • Many commentators have argued that War communism was actually an attempt immediately to eliminate private property, commodity production and market exchange, and in that way to implement communist economics, and that the Bolshevik leaders expected an immediate and large-scale increase in economic output.

Result of War Communism:

(a) Military

  • War communism was largely successful at its primary purpose of aiding the Red Army in halting the advance of the White Army and reclaiming most of the territory of the former Russian Empire thereafter. .

(b) Social

  • In the cities and surrounding countryside, the population experienced hardships as a result of the war. Peasants refused to co-operate in producing food. Workers began migrating from the cities to the countryside, where the chances to feed oneself were higher, thus further decreasing the possibility of in natural exchange of industrial goods for food and worsening the plight of the remaining urban population. Between 1918 and 1920, Petrograd lost 72% of its population, whilst Moscow lost 53%.
  • There were also a series of workers’ strikes and peasants’ rebellions all over the country. The turning point was the Kronstadt rebellion at the naval base in early March 1921. The rebellion had a startling effect on Lenin, because the Kronstadt sailors were considered by the Bolsheviks as the “reddest of the reds”. The Cheka reported 118 separate peasant uprisings alone in February 1921.
  • A government claiming to represent the people now found itself on the verge of being overthrown by that same working class. The crisis had undermined the loyalty of the villages, the towns and finally sections of the army.

(c) Economic

  • A black market emerged in Russia, despite the threat of the martial law against profiteering. The rubble collapsed and barter increasingly replaced money as a medium of exchange.
  • 90% of all wages were paid with goods rather than money. 70% of locomotives were in need of repair and the food requisitioning, combined with the effects of seven years of war and a severe drought, contributed to a famine that caused between millions of deaths.
  • Coal production, overall factory production and grain harvest decreased.




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